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Swiss vote for more powers for parliament

By voting for the initiative, the Swiss may reduce their powers, critics say. Keystone Archive

The polls have closed in a nationwide vote on "People's Rights".

This content was published on February 9, 2003 - 13:16

Exit polls indicate that Swiss voters have accepted proposals to change the way direct democracy is administered.

The polls, conducted by the GfS research institute in Bern on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, suggest that around 70 per cent of voters have said "yes" to the introduction of a General People's Initiative.

Critics say the new initiative would take power away from the people.

Social Democratic parliamentarian, Andreas Gross, insists the new initiative would reduce the voters' ability to influence policy.

"An initiative in the Swiss sense is the right of the minority to make concrete proposals [to government]," he said. "The new initiative only gives people the right to make a proposal to parliament."

If a vote were taken and passed using the new initiative, it would be up to parliament to decide whether the recommendations should be adopted under the law or under the constitution.

The existing people's initiative (see related story) only allows for a change to the constitution.

The distinction is a subtle one, but supporters of the initiative say it would make citizens' proposals more likely to become reality.

For one thing, says Luzius Mader of the Swiss justice ministry, a change in the law requires only a majority of the popular vote, whereas a change to the constitution also needs the support of a majority of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

A fairer system

Mader maintains that the arguments of opponents ignore what happens at the moment.

He says people's initiatives are often withdrawn after parliament presents a counter proposal that would lead to a change in the law. These counter proposals are frequently a "watered down version" of what the original initiative was demanding.

Moreover, Mader thinks that giving parliamentarians the final say makes for a fairer system than at present.

"Often an initiative is withdrawn by a committee which had the original idea of launching an initiative in the first place," he said. "I would prefer that decision to be taken by parliament and not just a small group of ten people."

Faster reform

Mader also maintains the new initiative would speed up the process of reform in Switzerland.

As a people's initiative can only bring about a change to the constitution, it requires a so-called "double majority" - a majority among both the cantons and the popular vote.

This, says Mader, accounts for the failure of many initiatives, because they make proposals more appropriate to a change in the law than the constitution.

"We now have a constitution that is limited to the essential elements," he said. "Many believe it would be wrong to include issues that are not of fundamental importance for the functioning of our state or the rights of the citizen."

He says a change to the law is much easier as it only requires a simple majority of the popular vote.

The new general initiative would enable parliamentarians to include its recommendations within any new legislation.

Collecting signatures

While Gross accepts there is a need for an initiative that would bring about a change in the law, he thinks the number of signatures required to launch a general people's initiative - 100,000 - is far too high.

The level is the same as for starting the existing people's initiative.

"There is a real crisis in direct democracy," he said. "Today you need a lot of money, organisation and resources to start an initiative and that's incredibly dangerous because it means direct democracy loses its whole character and reason."

In addition, he says the increase in postal voting has weakened the chances of many groups from getting enough signatures together to launch an initiative.

"Up to 90 per cent of people now vote by mail, so the old system of collecting signatures for future votes at the polling station is disappearing."

Mader admits that the number of signatures is higher than the government originally wanted - at least 70,000. But parliament insisted on maintaining the same level to protect the power of the cantons.

"Parliament felt that staying at 70,000 signatures would have made this new instrument [the general people's initiative] too attractive especially for changes to the law, which don't require a double majority," he said.

Foreign policy

A second change included in the People's Right vote would give voters a greater say in foreign policy issues.

If accepted it could force any state treaty with another country or international body to a nationwide vote if the agreement required a change in the law before it could come into effect.

A vote would be taken by means of a referendum - requiring only 50,000 signatures.

A second issue

Exit polls also indicate that in Sunday's other nationwide vote, the Swiss have accepted government proposals for cantons to pay the contributions to the costs of a hospital stay for patients with additional insurance cover in installments.

A 1996 law required the cantons to make those payments, but many refused to do so. A compromise was reached by parliament whereby the cantons would contribute SFr500 million annually starting in 2002.

Two health insurance companies forced a nationwide vote by demanding the full contribution as originally agreed.

All four parties in government, the health insurers umbrella organisation - Santésuisse - and the conference of cantonal finance directors recommended a 'no' vote.

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

In brief

Anyone wanting to launch a General People's Initiative would need to collect at least 100,000 valid signatures.

A General People's Initiative would allow parliament to decide whether its recommendations be incorporated within the constitution or under Swiss law.

An existing People's Initiative can only bring about a change in the constitution and requires a "double majority" of cantons and the popular vote.

Around 90 per cent of the Swiss vote by mail.

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